If you’ve ever been a parent trying to have a conversation about an important matter with your spouse, while in the next room your young kids incessantly kick, claw and scream at each other, you have a good proxy for what it is like in this moment to deeply care about the many pressing issues facing this country while hearing every attempt at rational discourse drowned out by the most strident and obnoxious voices on both sides of these issues.
At a time in which we have reached a crucible in such matters as our nation’s health care system, race relations, immigration, income inequality and, oh, yeah, the future viability of our planet, any potentially rational discussion of these matters is summarily shouted down on a daily basis by hateful and disparaging Trump tweets, red-faced and indignant talking heads on Fox News and MSNBC, and an endless chain of Facebook diatribes and counterdiatribes (to name just a few reliable sources).
This screaming-children effect is most noticeable as part of our national “discourse.” But it also carries the day in discussions of local matters.
As a resident of St. Anthony, I’ve seen the fabric of our community substantially frayed during the last year over the shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights by a St. Anthony police officer, as well as over the mishandling (to put it mildly) of the closing of the Lowry Grove affordable-housing trailer park in our city.
I attended a recent City Council meeting in hopes of seeing these issues discussed in good faith between members of the community and the mayor and City Council members. Instead, the meeting started with a group of political activists screaming for several minutes at Mayor Jerry Faust to resign as he attempted to start the meeting.
Many impassioned and moving speeches from St. Anthony citizens followed this inauspicious beginning. But for the most part they were met with rather cold and calculated responses from our mayor, who had been put back on his heels in defensive mode by the initial onslaught.
As with other City Council meetings since the shooting a year ago, seemingly nothing was resolved, or even moved forward, as seething anger on both sides precluded the secret sauce of any successful resolution of a contentious issue: an honest expression of empathy for the other side’s situation.
A similar event and similar result followed about a week later when vehement protesters shouted down Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges during her guarded public statement regarding the police shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond. The commonality between both public meetings was a conspicuous paucity of outward compassion on both sides for the alternative point of view.
Into this miasma of unrelenting discord, a minor story hit the news wire a few days ago that, while seemingly innocuous, broke through the usual hypercontentious white noise like a UFO coursing a cloudy night sky.
“The Cubs gave a World Series ring to Steve Bartman and I am [bawling],” a friend immediately texted me after hearing the news.
Bartman, as you may know, is the young man who had the audacity during the 2003 National League Championship Series to try to catch a foul ball, in the process deflecting it out of the reach of the Cubs’ left fielder and (in the minds of many die-hard Cubs fans) directly costing the team its first World Series title since 1908.
This cataclysm led to Bartman being doused with beer, ejected from the stadium, ostracized by the city of Chicago and, apparently following the snarky suggestion of then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich that he join a witness-protection program, by Bartman living as a recluse ever since.
The aforementioned text from my choked-up friend was then followed by an instant message from another usually jaded friend: “Just read article about Bartman and I wept like a baby,” he wrote, the news having left him in tears right before an important business meeting.
As a lifelong Cubs fan and someone who constructively dealt with the 2003 loss by imagining Bartman being pummeled to death on a firing line by 100-mile-per-hour fastballs, I have to admit to a similar response to the article — a combustible mix of joy, shame and, surprisingly, relief. My eyes filled with tears as I tried to return to my work e-mail inbox and go on with the day.
However, after the tears dried, I was left to wonder why such a comparatively minor story had such an impact on me and my friends.
The now-obvious answer is that our world, and the common language of our public discourse, have become so self-centered, reactive and fear-based that the simple act of showing compassion to another who has harmed us — for the sole purpose of showing compassion — now strikes us as such an aberrant method of human interaction that our brain struggles to process it. In this case, it reduced grown and completely sober men to tears.
But it’s a rather basic formula that we seem to have forgotten, at a time we need it the most. Empathy given and empathy received forces both sides of a conflict to step out of their insular point of view, see the world from the opposing viewpoint, and move on together to a better place.
Or, as more eloquently put by Bartman, a man who was forced into shameful exile for 14 years over the crime of trying to catch a baseball: “I humbly receive the ring not only as a symbol of one of the most historic achievements in sports, but as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today’s society.”
David Ash lives in St. Anthony.